HOUSTON -- Kobe Bryant was already icing his knees, believing the victory was secure. The next thing he knew, Phil Jackson was asking him to rescue the Los Angeles Lakers from the hard-charging Houston Rockets.
Bryant scored 23 points and the Lakers overcame the loss of Lamar Odom and the Rockets' near-historic comeback to beat Houston 102-94 Tuesday night.
The Lakers led by 27 points -- 93-66 -- with 9:45 left. Jackson pulled Bryant three minutes later and Bryant figured his night was over. However, Los Angeles didn't score another field goal until the final minute and the Rockets got within two before the Lakers pulled out the victory they should've sealed long before.
"That was the weirdest game I've ever been a part of," Bryant said. "That's the first time I've put the ice on and had to come back out and play. It's almost like Red Auerbach smoking the cigar."
Yao scored 26 points -- just five in the second half -- to lead the Rockets, who played without Tracy McGrady. The six-time All-Star is out indefinitely with back spasms.
Two minutes into the game, Odom sprained his right knee when Shane Battier blocked him on a layup. Odom, the Lakers' leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, was taken to a hospital for an MRI exam. The Lakers said Odom suffered a moderate MCL sprain and Jackson said he'll be lucky to play again before the end of January.
The Lakers still led by three at the half, then outscored the Rockets 30-13 in the third quarter to seemingly take control. They shot 65 percent in the quarter, while the Rockets committed 10 turnovers and missed nine of 13 shots.
"I thought we weren't as strong mentally as we could have been, when it was not going well for us," Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
In the fourth quarter, the Lakers' lead reached 26 points -- 90-64 -- with 10:22 left when Van Gundy pulled Yao, Battier and starting point guard Rafer Alston. Jackson pulled Bryant with Los Angeles leading by 27, leaving Smush Parker as the only starter on the floor.
The scrappy Rockets reserves held the Los Angeles leftovers without a field goal for eight minutes and hit three 3-pointers during a 24-1 spurt.
Jackson re-inserted his starters with four minutes left, but Chuck Hayes' free throws with 1:38 to go cut it to 94-92. The largest deficit the Rockets had ever overcome in a game is 23 points, done twice, the last time in 2001.
"We wanted the bench to finish things off," Jackson said. "We didn't finish it off and we are lucky to escape."
Luther Head, who started for McGrady, went 4-for-8 from 3-point range and scored 21 points. Head and Hayes were the only starters on the floor when Houston started its comeback.
"The guys coach put in at the end, we just said to ourselves, 'We've got nothing to lose,'" Head said.
Head started the rally with a 3-pointer and a jumper from just inside the arc. Bryant split two free throws to make it 94-73, but the Lakers went the next 6:38 without scoring.
Head scored again, then assisted on Hayes' layup to cut the lead to 15 with five minutes left. Head sank another 3-pointer with 2:54 remaining to trim the gap to 94-90.
"We had that confidence and we kept playing hard," Head said.
Early on, the Lakers could do little to stop Yao, who hit five of his first six shots.
Guarded by Brown, Yao converted two three-point plays in the first five minutes. Brown picked up both fouls and was replaced by 7-foot Andrew Bynum.
Yao promptly flipped a hook over Bynum, then dumped a pass to Head for a reverse layup that gave the Rockets a 19-9 lead.
The Rockets missed four of their last five shots of the half and the Lakers finished with a 13-3 run to take a 54-51 lead at the break.
Bonzi Wells, who hadn't played since the third game, started the second half for Houston and pulled down a rebound 13 seconds out of halftime. Van Gundy acknowledged this week that the two had "struggled to find common ground" since Wells arrived at training camp.
The Lakers opened the half with a 14-4 run as the Rockets turned sloppy, committing eight turnovers in the first six minutes.
"We didn't have the focus you need to have to play those guys," said Battier. "You've really got to be on your game mentally. We didn't respond the way good teams respond. Hopefully, that's a lesson we can learn."
- The Rockets fell to 9-31 without McGrady.
- Houston opens its longest road trip of the season, a five-game West Coast swing, against Golden State on Thursday.
- The Rockets and Lakers play again Friday at Staples Center.